What is the True Purpose of Art?

Award-winning English poet and author Henry Shukman and Rupert have much in common. They were both successful artists in the first two decades of their adult life – Henry, with his poetry, and Rupert, as a potter; they are both now spiritual teachers – Henry in the Zen tradition; and Henry grew up in Oxford in the same street where Rupert now lives.

With all this in mind, Steve James, who knew them each separately, has brought them together.

In his introduction, Steve describes Rupert’s arc as following the traditional model of apprenticeship, first to Michael Cardew then Francis Lucille, and Henry’s as that of a self-characterised ‘lone wolf, snarling with distrust’.

The conversation explores how, in both cases from a young age, their art was affected by spiritual inclination and the points of intersection between art and spirit.

Rupert begins by stating that ‘the true purpose of art is to reveal the nature of reality, which is what all spiritual traditions aim to do in one way or another’. His process, training as a potter, was, on the outside, an exploration of form and materiality that reflected an inner search for ways to understand and express reality. He says that we have art because it is a necessity, not a luxury, and this has always been the case. All so-called primitive societies were highly developed artistically, and people have been creative even in concentration camps. Art is fundamental to us as human beings.

Henry describes his childhood discovery of the power of words. He and a friend at school ‘ransacked books that brought us to life’. Although he could never have articulated it thus at the time, he recognised that ‘somehow there was a way of experiencing this very moment, my life, that was not the way I normally experienced it’.

Henry was writing poetry from a young age, and he remembers a particular time when his body tingled and shook as phrases formed in his mind that he immediately wrote down. His exploration and knowledge of reality were completely bound up with the expression of it.

They both agree that a work of art, even one that uses words, concepts and other forms, can take us to a place that is prior to the conceptualisation of experience. It can have an almost magical power to collapse the distinction between subject and object, to reveal the ‘absence of otherness that is the nature of reality’.

Discussing apprenticeship, both artistic and spiritual, Rupert describes his two significant apprenticeships as being relationships of total immersion in the ways of the master followed by the need to emerge and discover an individual voice and form of expression. While his tenure under Michael Cardew was a struggle, all the difficulties and failures helped him find a language of his own. With Francis, there was no struggle; his emergence just happened gradually.

Henry says that, in contrast to Rupert’s life story, he was ‘in some ways more troubled, and very distrustful’. He did, however, have a similar devotional apprenticeship with celebrated Scottish poet Douglas Dunn, through which he honed a sort of discipline in the shaping of his poetry that eventually freed his own voice.

When, later, he came across Zen, he found he could trust his own way completely. He talks about the Zen Death, in which the self dissolves thoroughly – as does Zen and the whole training process – leaving the freedom for a completely new expression.

They finish by discussing the necessity for liberation from traditional forms while retaining the utmost respect for such forms. In Rupert’s words: ‘Isn’t that what the great originators did? Jesus was not a Christian; the Buddha was not a Buddhist. The teaching, the understanding, needs to be reformulated by every generation. If not, it becomes a series of concepts, like canned food. Yes, it’s food, but it’s not fresh!’

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